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Sattin-Bajaj's Incisive Look at How School Choice Works for Immigrant Kids

One of my frustrations with the education debate is how the "with us or against us" framing can make it hard to raise thorny issues without being labeled an "opponent" of a given idea. I experienced this in spades back in the early 2000s, when I wrote in Revolution at the Margins that careful scrutiny of Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Edgewood, Texas, suggested that grand claims for the "competitive effects" of vouchers and charter schooling were overstated--at least in the near term and until larger changes were made to school systems. My stance was regarded by many choice proponents as "anti-choice," rather than as an opportunity to see the challenges more clearly and a tool to help shape a more robust improvement agenda.

This all came to mind the other day as I read Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj's terrific new book Unaccompanied Minors: Immigrant Youth, School Choice, and the Pursuit of Equity. Sattin-Bajaj, an assistant professor at Seton Hall University, examines how immigrant students navigate New York City's universal high school choice program. She goes deep into the black box, raising hard questions in the process. She doesn't simply look at test scores to declare that choice does or doesn't work for these kids. Nor does she bask in sob stories and throw up her hands at the horrible, culturally repressive, linguistically normative praxis of it all. Instead, she looks hard at New York City's choice ecosystem, at real problems and unintended consequences, and suggests what might be done about them.  

Sattin-Bajaj isn't taking sides "for" or "against" choice--she's digging deep, taking concerns seriously, and proposing interesting suggestions as to how make choice work better for more kids. She begins by reminding us that that around 30% of school-age children will be living with at least one immigrant parent by 2018, making clear that the issue here is anything but a boutique concern. Sattin-Bajaj offers her own view early on, noting that school choice can help to combat inequity, but that "choice policies often rest on faulty assumptions about parental involvement, educational beliefs, and access to resources to inform decisions about schools."

Each year, in New York City, 80,000 eighth-graders exercise school choice, selecting among 700 programs in 400 public high schools. There are eight "specialized" high schools that admit students based upon their score on an entrance exam. Most of the city's small new high schools fall into another category, "limited unscreened": these schools don't have grade or test score requirements, but can require parents to attend an information session in order to apply. In 2012-13, 84% of students were admitted to one of their top five choices. Sattin-Bajaj points out that there are a limited number of seats at "good" schools--just 34% of schools with 2011 graduating classes had a grad rate of 75% or higher. All of this means that it matters a lot which schools families pick and whether families know how to make the choice system work for them.

In fact, Sattin-Bajaj argues, the choice system makes it tough for immigrant families to do that. She flags a number of relevant features. One is the extent of information asymmetry, due to the New York City Department of Education's reliance on electronic media and a lack of translated materials. Another is the limited amount of available data on school performance. A third is what Sattin-Bajaj terms an "unrealistic" set of expectations about parental time, knowledge, and expertise. A fourth is NYCDOE's rose-tinted belief of how much help middle school guidance counselors can provide. In practice, writes Sattin-Bajaj, "without guidelines, mandates, incentives, or supervision, evidence ... shows that school-level approaches could depart radically" from how district officials hope the choice process will play out.

Sattin-Bajaj closes with a number of suggestions for improving practices at the district and school level--some seemingly commonsensical and some more provocative.

  • She urges the district to improve the availability of information by publishing printed translations of relevant documents, to create a stand-alone entity to advise parents on choice, and to provide free school choice training for community-based organizations.
  • Rather than giving middle schools free rein when it comes to providing students and families with school choice information, she calls for establishing minimum requirements regarding what schools share with students. She calls for mandatory training for middle school personnel and additional resources to help high-needs schools provide choice counseling, 
  • She advocates a new mechanism to oversee middle schools and hold them accountable: linking information-provision to accountability, measuring parental and student satisfaction with the information and guidance they receive, and publishing annual reports on choices made by a middle school's graduates and on middle school students' eventual high school outcomes.
  • She wants middle schools to put more emphasis on choice counseling, to create cultures focused on "thoughtful engagement" in high school choice, and to promote a "shared" student experience when it comes to school choice.

You'll notice that most of this can also apply to any choice plan, whether district, charter, or private. Now, the merit of these remedies strikes me as an open question. With some, I'm concerned about the potential for new compliance burdens, invasive reporting, demands on teacher time, commitments to lackluster professional development, and spending obligations. I think the needs of these students and families need to be balanced with such considerations. But the larger point here is that Sattin-Bajaj has penned a valuable contribution and a terrific book. It is clear and accessible, brings concrete data and practical experience to bear, and has the potential to spark some smart thinking on a challenge that has loomed large for school choice advocates. Advocates and skeptics alike would do well to read this book, reflect on its insights, and figure out how to put them to work.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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